Religious leaders stand united for peace in Cyprus


With the resumption of Cyprus negotiations, clerics from both sides of the island gave fresh momentum to the process with a new joint declaration to pursue reconciliation.

By Menekse Tokyay for Southeast European Times in Istanbul -- 25/03/14


(Front, from left) Maronite Archbishop Youssef Soueif, Grand Mufti of Cyprus Talip Atalay, Archbishop of the Greek Cypriot Orthodox Church Chrysostomos II, Armenian Archbishop Varoujan Herkelian, and Latin Representative Priest George Kraj were among those who gathered for a recent meeting of religious leaders in Cyprus. [Directorate of Religious Affairs]

Following the recent resumption of political dialogue between officials from both portions of Cyprus, religious leaders gathered last month to lend their support to the start of new talks on the island.

The February 26th meeting was the latest in a series of discussions facilitated since 2009 by the Swedish Embassy in South Nicosia. The gathering included Mufti of Cyprus Talip Atalay, Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus Chrysostomos II, Maronite Archbishop Youssef Soueif, Armenian Archbishop Varoujan Herkelian, Latin Catholic Priest George Kraj, and Lisa Buttenheim, the UN secretary general's special representative to Cyprus.

A joint declaration released after the meeting highlighted the island's history of Christians and Muslims living, working and worshipping side-by-side. Cyprus has been divided into the Greek Cypriot south and Turkish north for 40 years.

"Religion was and still is a victim of the protracted conflict. For too many decades we were not able to meet, to listen and to understand each other," the declaration reads.

"For the last years we have agreed to meet regularly, openly express our respect and listen to one another. Our encounters have helped us to get to know each other and understand the other's needs. Together we have tried to find practical solutions, build trust and confidence and succeeded.

"We see our responsibility to ensure that the political conflict is resolved and we believe that there is no alternative to communication, co-operation and co-existence. Working together, seeking to overcome differences and supporting each other are obligations for people of faith and tools to promote faith when there is doubt, love where there is hatred and hope to overcome despair."

Atalay and Bishop Portfyrios of Neapolis, director of the Representation of the Church of Cyprus to the EU, attended the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva earlier this month. Their joint presence marked the first-ever participation of religious leaders from the two main ethnic communities of the island in UN human rights meetings.

Porfyrios told SETimes that the on-going dialogue between the religious communities aims to protect human rights and religious freedom on the island. He added that if the efforts of religious leaders are taken seriously by political officials during negotiations "it could substantially help for a quicker, fair and sustainable solution of the Cyprus problem."

Porfyrios also said that respecting religious freedom and all other human rights is crucial to reaching a solution that citizens will find acceptable.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of German Marshall Fund, said the goal of the Cyprus negotiations is not only political reunification of the island, it is also the reunification of the Turkish and Greek Cypriot societies.

"It is important that different actors in each society play a constructive role in this process," Unluhisarcikli told SETimes. "In this regard, engaging them as active stakeholders rather than passive observers is very important. Within this framework, engaging religious leaders on both sides of the island is a step in the right direction."

"The Directorate of Religious Affairs in the Turkish part of the island does not really have an autonomous political power, but it can still have an impact on how the Turkish Cypriots approach the idea of reunification. The Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus is a political power in its own right and can have a profound impact on the direction of a possible referendum on a settlement plan," he added.

The primary facilitators of the dialogue, Salpy Eskidjian and Peter Weiderud, working under the auspices of the Swedish Embassy, told SETimes that by speaking the same language and working together the religious leaders can give hope that Cypriots can live together and share the island.

"Studies have shown that religious people on both sides are more occupied with violence than in the past, more reluctant to interact with the other side and to dialogue. Religion could play a much more constructive role in the Cyprus peace process," Eskidjian and Weiderud said.

"Interreligious communication invests in trust building based on universal respect for human dignity," they added.

Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on religious freedom or belief, issued a report to the UN Human Rights Council in December showing the importance of inter-faith dialogue for the resolution of political problems.

"Regular communication across religious boundaries is the most important precondition for fostering understanding and preventing or overcoming mistrust between religious or belief groups," the report said. "When conducted on an equal footing and in a sustained manner, that is, in ways that go beyond mere superficial brief encounters, interreligious communication can help replace stereotypes and prejudices by real experiences."

Eskidjian said religious leaders have a common interest to ensure human rights and religious freedom on the island, and their success depends on mutual respect for human rights law.

Eskidjian added that although the Cyprus conflict is a political issue about land, governance and power, religion plays a determining role in the island's politics by providing a conduit for healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.

"Cyprus is the only country in the European Union where Christians and Muslims have lived together for centuries in what can be described as co-existence, co-operation or even harmony. But for the last half-century the experience has been the opposite," she said.

"Religious rights are one of the obvious victims in the Cyprus conflict. Places of worship are left to perish, turned into other uses, the right of worship is not fully respected, the rightful owners have limited or no access to them. The political solution cannot ignore these rights. They are violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. The religious leaders agree on this together, and if they continue in this path together they can make a positive contribution," she added.

Eskidjian also said the international community has not always understood how to best relate religion and its role in the Cyprus conflict. She said during the period that led to the Annan Plan, a UN proposal to create a united Cyprus with two federations, the international community didn't do enough to foster communication with and between all the main actors. A 2004 referendum on the plan failed, as 66.7 percent of voters rejected it.

"The Annan plan, which was a sophisticated document on legal matters and federal solutions, looked at reconciliation in a rather static way, as a fruit that should come at the end of process, rather than looking at interaction and dialogue for reconciliation as an instrument for peace building," she said. "The strong and very different reaction to the Annan plan from the religious communities in Cyprus was a reason why we wanted to look closer into these issues."

"We were shocked to find out that the religious leaders had never met in the last five decades in any formal way. The level of mistrust, misunderstanding, stereotyping and fear was detrimental to a final solution of the Cyprus conflict," she added.

Unluhisarcikli agreed.

"Inter-societal dialogue is very important for the peace negotiations in Cyprus to reach a successful conclusion and for the two societies on the island to live harmoniously once again," he said. "In this regard enhanced dialogue between different sectors of the two societies, including inter-faith dialogue, is needed. While grievances based on religious differences can cause political violence, interfaith dialogue can support peace processes."

Atalay said religious leaders should speak with a language different than that of politicians, and that language should promote universal peace, which would in turn provide a peaceful environment for politics to operate.

"Many problems in Cyprus are mainly rooted in psychological barriers, thereby preventing any opportunities to discuss the real problems of the island by convening both communities' representatives. Religious leaders will play a very important role at this stage because all religions preach peace and brotherhood," Atalay told SETimes.

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Atalay added that the on-going dialogue enabled both communities to get to know each other and build confidence.

"Among Greek Cypriots, the church has a psychological upper hand over the community. A peace agreement that is vetoed by the Church cannot be approved by their people. The Church is also providing significant financial support to the island residents over the last two years, so it is really a key actor," he said.

"Islam preaches that people should speak with their neighbours whatever their religion is, and neighbours have numerous rights like treating the neighbour well, refraining from harming your neighbour, and co-operating with your neighbours," Atalay added.

How can religious communities in Cyprus contribute to reconciliation? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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